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The year in review

The 2019–2020 financial year has been a challenging period.

It is impossible to reflect on this period without focusing on the tragic circumstances that have unfolded across Australia and globally since November 2019 – namely, the devastating bushfires across Australia and the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, with its widespread community lockdowns, loss of life, impacts on the most vulnerable in our communities and severe economic and social impacts that have been felt by all of us.

These events have been deeply unsettling. As in most times of crisis, they have highlighted the worst of human nature and most importantly, the very best.

I, like many, have been humbled and inspired by the extraordinary efforts of our frontline workers in particular. But everyone is playing their part – most of the community have demonstrated their willingness to do their bit to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by social distancing and accepting very difficult restrictions on individual liberties and freedoms in the name of a greater good.
It has been the most extraordinary display of commitment. It has highlighted vividly that we are more than a collection of individuals. That we see ourselves as part of a community, with responsibilities to each other, and where the rights of others matter.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has played its part in the response to the pandemic. Our Commissioners have offered advisory support on the human rights implications of the pandemic, for example, by:

  • highlighting the gendered impact of the pandemic and in identifying structural reform to ensure women are appropriately supported and do not bear an unequal burden of the pandemic’s implications
  • developing resources for multicultural communities experiencing racism during the pandemic, and assisting government in engaging with these communities to effectively respond to the scourge of racism
  • playing a leading role in the development of guidance on the impacts of the pandemic on persons with disability and also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • engaging with government on key issues relating to the restriction of rights and freedoms generally – such as by ensuring appropriate privacy protections with the COVID-Safe contact tracing app, encouraging the use of masks as a public health measure, and monitoring the scope of restrictions on freedom of movement, association and related rights (such as family reunion)
  • handling complaints of discrimination that have arisen during the pandemic, predominately relating to racial discrimination and disability discrimination
    closely monitoring the impact of the pandemic on particular groups of people vulnerable to adverse consequences: such as older persons, people in immigration detention, and children.

While we have refocused much of our work in the second half of the year to deal with these essential challenges, we have also continued to promote better protections for human rights across the full year.

The report of the landmark national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, Respect@Work, was released in March 2020. Incidents of sexual harassment continue to receive much attention, across a range of institutional settings, highlighting the need for significant reforms as outlined in the report. It sets out a reform agenda for addressing this serious problem through cultural and legal reform, and in ensuring more systemic focus from government.

Over this past year, the Commission has also continued to conduct industry-specific projects aimed at achieving cultural reform around sexual harassment and abuse, as well as racial discrimination. A key focus of this work is through our longstanding partnership with the Australian Defence Force, which has been extended for another four years.

Prior to completing her term in March 2020, our National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, finalised the development of a series of e-resources on child safety to assist organisations of all sizes to build a proactive culture that can prevent child abuse. This work, and the National Child Safety Principles that they support, has been a major achievement for the Commission and will likely have a positive impact for many years to come.

The Commissioner finalised her term with the release of her sixth National Children’s Report setting out a roadmap for protecting the rights of children in Australia. This followed her engagement with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – which conducted its 7-yearly review of Australia’s progress under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This work on child safety has also assisted the Commission to develop better capacity to deliver online education and training. We have significantly increased the scope of this work over the past year. In the coming year, we will look to build on this additional capacity by focusing on opportunities to create human rights education training for public servants.

Throughout the past year, as President, I also focused on the ‘free and equal’ initiative, our national conversation on human rights. This ambitious project aims to set out a human rights reform agenda for the next decade. Highlights of the project over the past year include the national free and equal conference, and the associated series of roundtables that were convened with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2019. Workshops were also convened on accountability frameworks for human rights; federal discrimination law reform; and improving human rights consideration in parliamentary and government decision-making processes.

A series of reports from this project will be released from late 2020, commencing with the Commission’s proposed federal discrimination law reform agenda.

The coming year will see the culmination of two major projects – first, by our Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, on human rights and technology; and second, by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report on the voices of Indigenous women and girls.

A discussion paper as well as national consultations, technical workshops and other activities have been conducted for the human rights and technology project over the reporting year. The outcomes of this report will be considerable in addressing issues relating to the use of artificial intelligence in decision-making processes and ensuring that the digital revolution benefits rather than disadvantages persons with disability, among other challenges.

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report is the culmination of several years of work engaging directly with Indigenous women and girls – telling their stories and their priorities, in their voices. It will propose significant systemic reforms to the approach of governments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This will occur at the same time as other key initiatives such as the Closing the Gap national reform agreement and progress on the Uluru Declaration from the Heart. Common to all three of these reforms is the need for an Indigenous voice to sit at the centre of policy responses to the situation of indigenous peoples.

The Commission continues to play a role in the Closing the Gap process, with the secretariat for the Close the Gap NGO coalition continuing to operate from the Commission – as it has since its inception.

The Commission’s work on disability rights has also been significant in this period. Our new Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Ben Gauntlett, led our engagement with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disability, and has brought a significant human rights focus to the refreshing of the National Disability Strategy.

Important reviews are currently underway examining achievements under the standards under the Disability Discrimination Act, which the Commissioner is engaged in, and the Commission has also regularly provided its expertise to the Royal Commission into institutional abuse of persons with disability.

Our Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, has also led a major consultation process with Muslim Australians, the outcomes of which are due for publication in late 2020; and has been engaged with government in revamping efforts to address racism in all of its forms.

The Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, has also focused considerable attention on the importance of addressing elder abuse in the community, through community awareness activities and in working with governments to implement the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report on elder abuse.

Alongside this work, sits the Commission’s work in handling complaints of discrimination and breaches of human rights. There was a 13% increase in complaints lodged with the Commission in this financial year.

All complaints that come to the Commission are lodged by individuals or organisations – the Commission has no power to initiate complaints itself.

I am very proud of the fact that our Investigation and Conciliation Service continues to receive exceptionally high satisfaction ratings from those participating in the process. It is notable that the highest satisfaction ratings come from respondents to complaints. That the Commission is seen as professional, supportive and impartial in how it acquits its role in addressing complex complaints, often in stressful circumstances, is a testament to the quality of our staff.

As we enter the 2020–21 financial year, the Commission is focused on building on its considerable achievements from the past year:

  • turning recommendations from our significant project work into action, including to better protect all Australians from algorithmic bias in automated decision-making processes, better protect people from sexual harassment, elevate the voice of Indigenous women and girls, incorporate the human rights of persons with disability into all government programs and policies
  • ensuring that in the continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the human rights of all Australians are only limited in circumstances that are fully justified as necessary, the minimal intrusion of rights that is required, and lasting for the shortest necessary period
  • ensuring that in the recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic, no-one is left behind and that certain groups of people in Australia (such as women and Asian Australians) do not bear a disproportionate or unequal burden of the economic and social consequences
  • embedding human rights protections in the ordinary processes of government decision making, to proactively protect the rights of all people in Australia better.

We look forward to Australia emerging from the pandemic with our communities stronger, and with people more connected to each other; with there being a greater appreciation of the importance of respecting each other’s rights and our individual and collective role in achieving this; and with the knowledge that no challenge is too great for our nation to face – knowing that bold, determined action can be taken on any number of human rights challenges, if there is a will to do so.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM